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I made the point earlier that the social housing grant available to the registered social landlords is now also available to housebuilders and developers, and it is very tricky to bring them within the scope of requirements in this legislation. So there are hazards in extending the legislation to embrace registered social landlords, although I am rather sympathetic to the idea that local authorities and the registered social landlords in their area should work in a more cohesive partnership in the future. Will the Minister say whether these issues might be addressed by the Government’s response to the Cave review on the regulation and inspection of housing associations, and whether relevant legislation is likely to be laid as early as November? That might be the time to mop up several of these issues.

Baroness Andrews: This is an important debate because of the importance of housing and the contribution that RSLs make to the provision of housing. The relationships between local authorities and RSLs are critical. We have discussed in debates on previous parts of the Bill why the RSLs are private, not public, bodies and the implications of that. These not-for-profit bodies often have charitable objectives and are not part of the public sector, and I have said before that it is not appropriate to treat them as such. The noble Baroness raises a very serious issue, and she is right that improving conditions for tenants in the sector is absolutely vital. I will address the point about the Cave review in a moment.

One of the things that has marked the past 10 years has been the ability of the RSLs to raise capital outside the confines of the PSBR. That has been an enormous boon and has helped enormously with our capacity to provide decent homes. They engage with local authorities in different ways; indeed, there are some extremely robust and excellent partnerships. The corporation can make new regulatory demands on them if needed, though we are committed to minimising the burden.

While I am completely sympathetic to the Opposition’s intention here, the problem can be picked up in the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best. We are sure that the regulation of RSLs needs to focus more on tenant protection and empowerment. That is the burden of the Cave review, and we have already taken in what was said there by proposing to accept much of it. One key thing was that, when Cave considered how the regulatory regime could be reformed to ensure better outcomes for tenants of all social landlords, he quite rightly recommended that the regulatory system should focus more on empowering

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and protecting tenants—and the need for a constructive engagement between social landlords and local authorities. So, when we launched a consultation on 19 June, we had already acknowledged that we proposed accepting, for example, that there needed to be a statutory independent regulator and that social housing regulation should be separated from investment.

It would be premature to try to legislate for that in this Bill, as the Cave review is so important in enabling us to look at both what constitutes smaller but better regulation—I am thinking in particular of those small RSLs that the noble Baroness talked about—and how we can ensure that whichever regulatory regime is put in place focuses not just on place shaping but on a better deal for tenants. That is the real burden of the Cave review—to be much more tenant-focused, with local authorities working much more positively with social landlords and engaging in joint roles.

The Cave review determined that it is the job of the regulator and the ombudsman—and no one else—to take action regarding how well an RSL performs, including how well it engages with local authorities on place-shaping issues. He therefore addressed the role of local authorities in some detail. The problem is that giving other bodies direct power to impose requirements and enforce penalties on RSLs, as is suggested, would be a confusing development when we are trying both to simplify regulation and to make regulation consistent.

The review and the Government recognise the important role that local authorities may play in bringing poor performance by landlords to light. So, the review recommends that local authorities and tenants have a right to trigger intervention by the regulator against a landlord, if there is evidence of misconduct or mismanagement in areas including tenant involvement, delivery of housing standards, efficiency, viability and engagement with local authorities. In his review, Cave proposes that this reformed regulator has a wider range of remedial powers to deal with poor performance. At present, when the Housing Corporation steps in, it tends to focus on emergency powers; under the new system, the regulator would have new and positive powers including improvement and enforcement notices, and administrative penalties such as fines. In extremis, it can require a change of management or ownership. That is, of course, part of the consultation—and a positive step forward in the direction that the noble Baroness wants.

The Government have proposed to accept these recommendations, and to legislate shortly. To pick up another point, Cave recommended that collective for-profit private bodies can now get a grant to build social housing, and that they be given the chance to register with the regulator instead. We want to ensure that tenants are protected to the same extent by the regulatory system, whether under contract or registration. We have promised to legislate as soon as possible and are having a thorough consultation. Many of the issues have been picked up by the Cave review and we have already responded to those. We look forward to bringing legislation forward when we can.



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7.15 pm

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for that detailed reply. I want to look at it, as I could not take it all in. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his intervention, which pointed out the issue that we have always had about money going off to private developers. That leads us into a completely different area, as we all knew that it would.

I thank the Minister for addressing this as closely and sympathetically as she has. I am very aware of the Cave review and that it has many details. I am also aware of the concerns raised with me by London Councils, which also knows about that review and its implications. It is clearly not happy about waiting to see how long that will take.

Baroness Andrews: I apologise for interrupting, but it is worth telling the noble Baroness that we are looking to put this into the housing regeneration Bill this autumn, but we obviously cannot rush it; we need a proper consultation, because there are implications and details like those which the noble Lord pointed out. However, it will be quick.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for that, but I may come back to this in some way at the next stage, if there are some things that will not impinge on what that housing Bill is going to do. If there are some assurances that most of this will be included there, that would be helpful.

Baroness Andrews: Before the noble Baroness sits down, I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, for completely forgetting him. I will certainly do what he said, since the Beecham review has only just reported. Best value is treated slightly differently in Wales, and there are clear issues over who has been consulted. We will certainly write to the noble Lord about that.

Baroness Hanham: Just to conclude, I was going to say that it was also nice to have the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, intervene with his nice Welsh burr, which livened up that debate enormously. I thank the Minister for that reply.

Clause 238 agreed to.

Lord Bruce-Lockhart moved Amendment No. 246A:

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 246A seeks to insert a new clause in order to support deregulation, and to add parliamentary accountability. It requires the Secretary of State to report on local government targets and plans, and to prepare an annual plan to report that to Parliament in order to reduce the administrative burden.

All sides of your Lordships’ House have, in the past, supported the reduction in the centrally imposed burden of regulation. We all feel strongly that such a burden of control on local government has held back an improvement in public services, and denied the ability of local people to make local decisions or to assess local needs and circumstances. It has, therefore, denied local choice. At the same time, it has wasted public money. Again, I think that all sides of the House have talked of the United Kingdom being quite unique in that centrally imposed system.

Therefore, last summer, in its document People and Places, the Local Government Association proposed a reduction in those controls. We had constructive meetings with the department for local government and the Treasury, and were very pleased that the White Paper, when it came out in October, sought to reduce the current 1,000 performance indicators and targets imposed on local authorities down to 200, with some 35 national outcomes. Yet it is not just those; there are the plans that must be submitted, the financial bid system, the guidance that comes down, and the whole burden of control.

I was a little confused to read—since that document had come out in October—the front-page headline in the Guardianlast week about a dramatic reduction in central control, and of moving on from the Blair years. I wonder how that reduction announced in October to 200 targets has been reduced further, or are we still where we were in October? Was this a reannouncement of an old announcement already made in a White Paper in the autumn?

Nevertheless, the noble Baroness in the past has supported strongly a deregulatory agenda and parliamentary accountability. This amendment seeks to do that and we hope to have the support of the noble Baroness. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham: My name is not added to this amendment. I have a great deal of sympathy with my noble friend Lord Bruce-Lockhart’s proposal. I do not think that we need to commit to this and the other amendments in Committee, but they are probing amendments for a serious discussion on this area of deregulation. My noble friend has been very agile in moving this amendment and in providing us with this opportunity.

Baroness Hamwee: If my noble friend Lady Scott were here, she would say, because she said it before she went, “We have to, why shouldn’t they?”, as regards reporting. If my noble friend Lord Greaves were here, he would remind us that he raised the issue of consolidation. If local government legislation were

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consolidated, it would show dramatically the administrative burden. I shall not add my own comment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: I respect very much the intention of the amendment, but I wonder whether it takes fully into account the recent trend towards that intention. When I read the amendment, I am grateful that it includes the part of the Local Government Act which says,

I just wonder what would be left. As I see it, there is a dilemma. Colleagues are urging that burdens be lifted from local authorities to allow them to get on with the job. At the same time, a local authority which has been doing that is to have imposed on it a duty to report regularly on what it has done.

In the world of local government, I imagine everyone knows what is being done. I attended the recent meeting of London Councils under the chairmanship of Councillor Merrick Cockell. Frankly, I have never looked at a more respectable or more determined group of men and women than those representing London Councils. They would certainly use me, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, if this was a burning issue, but I do not think that it is. When I look at what the Government have done—I am not talking about magic dates or issues—they appear generally to have recognised what the noble Lord is trying to do. They allow local authorities to get on with the job and try to lift some of the burdensome legislation or duties placed on them.

That may not be happening fast enough, but I cannot imagine that the Government and the department want to retain unnecessary power a minute longer. When the Government, after consultation, decide that there is no longer any need for reporting, monitoring or guidance, there will be a common consent that they are done away with. I respect where the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, is coming from, but at the moment I cannot see what this will add to the good relationship between councils and the Government.

Baroness Andrews: Not for the first time my noble friend has put his finger on the spot. He has exposed very eloquently the paradox of the amendment. I was going to start by saying that under the amendment the Secretary of State would pick up a new power to add to the bureaucratic process, and then demonstrate in inordinate detail the whole process we have been through, which the noble Lord knows far better than most, to reduce the burden of bureaucracy with which local government has had to deal.

The other expectation is that the amendment somehow will pave the way to a situation where all duties relating to local area agreements and community strategies will somehow wither away; that is, the state in its local form will finally wither away.

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The noble Lord will also know that that is unlikely and not appropriate because there are very important duties on local authorities which have to be maintained.

The direction of travel since the local government White Paper in 2001 has been to implement a range of measures which incrementally have freed local authorities from plan requirements and consent regimes, and given them greater financial freedoms to charge, trade and borrow. We have reduced the separate number of plan requirements by 75 per cent against the 2001 figures—for example, the annual library plan and the contaminated land strategy. Today, we have laid a legislative reform order, subject to debate after the Recess, which will remove a further four measures—for example, prosecutions under taxi licensing provisions.

We have legislated to enhance charging, trading and borrowing freedoms through the Local Government Act 2003. The comprehensive performance assessment is proportionate and risk-based now instead of the 1,200 targets. We have rationalised area-based initiatives through the local area agreement. I know that all this has been very welcome indeed. It was reinforced by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when he set out on 18 July a reformed approach to national target setting. It was not new, but shed more light and picked up on the non-LAA service providers as well.

We are looking at setting targets at a national level where they genuinely drive up improvement on the ground. I know that Councillor Merrick Cockell, the chair of London Councils who has been praised by my noble friend, has welcomed this.

Baroness Hanham:Hansard will be very confused by the pronunciation. The name is Councillor Merrick Cockell. He is getting called all sorts of things and I happen to know him quite well.

Baroness Andrews: I am very grateful for that intervention. I apologise to the gentleman and I shall try hard to get it right next time.

The noble Lord wants to achieve knowledge about progress being made. The most recent White Paper implementation plan sets out how we will work with the LGA, representatives of local authorities and their local partners to keep guidance to a minimum. We all need to work together. That plan promises regular updates on progress against White Paper delivery. That sort of information will be useful, robust, informative and most helpful. The updates will be published on the White Paper section of the Communities and Local Government website. That is the way to do it. I do not think that the Secretary of State should have a role because it is not appropriate and is another layer. Ultimately, it will achieve what the noble Lord wants.

Lord Bruce-Lockhart: I thank the Minister for that. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, put his finger on it by saying that there is not a common understanding here, which is why we need a reporting mechanism. Central government thinks that the burden of bureaucracy is getting less and local government feels

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that it is getting more. The whole point of doing an annual report is to clarify that, so that we do not argue about it and can get on with improvement, and reporting that to Parliament I feel would be helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.30 pm

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 246C:

The noble Lord said: In the absence of my noble friend Lord Hanningfield, I shall take on the burden of moving this amendment, which I hasten to add for the Minister’s ease is an exploratory amendment, perhaps to give her an opportunity to take some action over the Summer Recess, which would help local government greatly.

The amendment would repeal Section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986 and the code of practice in relation to publicity, which is now a generation old. Some extraordinary characters bestrode the stage of local government in those days, and life—as I remember very well—was on occasions extremely interesting; but it was not always in the best interests of the public. I am bound to say that everything that I observe today about the present generation of councillors shows that they are far more responsible and do the job in a much more reasonable way.

The code of practice was devised in those days to be somewhat restrictive, but the whole process of how councils have worked as a consequence of a raft of legislation has made them much more flexible. They must now work much more by getting public consent for what they are doing. The local area agreements, which we have proposed in this Bill, will dramatically widen that need for consultation. It has got to the point when the code of practice in this field is too restrictive and it would be very useful if it could be relaxed.

That is the simple purpose of this amendment—to put to the Minister that we have an opportunity to do something about this, and there is plenty of time to do it because the Recess is coming. If she could give some assurance that she will consider this matter and see whether something can be done about it when we meet again in the autumn, it would be very encouraging for everybody. I beg to move.

Lord Best: I strongly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I am not sure whether I have declared my interest as president of the Local Government Association. The time has come for local government to boldly proclaim the good news about what it does and not feel inhibited or restrained by this code. As was rightly pointed out, the code arose at a time when—I think that we have to be honest—the GLC and Mrs Thatcher were at loggerheads. Those days are long gone. Local government has grown up and there are better relationships between local government and central government. Those in

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local government are now the place-shapers and community leaders, and they need to feel uninhibited in putting out good information and using the power of communications, whereas this code greatly inhibits people from doing just that.


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